Laura Mark speaks to the three RIBA presidential candidates about what they would do for the profession if you give them your vote
Why are you running for president?
Ben Derbyshire I want to be seen as a Trojan horse. I came into the RIBA two years ago and have participated in some of its activities but I’m not really an insider. I came in because I wanted to change it and the logical next step to achieve that change is to run for presidency.
Andrew Salter I was approached by some people who suggested I put my name forward.
Alan Jones I’m standing because the RIBA is at a crisis point. We have to make it more inclusive and relevant. We have to turn the RIBA into the institute we need it to be. Architecture and architects need the RIBA.
The RIBA is at a crisis point
Why don’t more people put themselves forward in the race for RIBA president?
AJ It’s a big commitment. There is a year of president elect to give you time to do your research and prepare, then your two years as president goes very quickly, then that is followed by a year as immediate past president. It’s a four-year commitment. You have to be a strong character to acknowledge the differences and opinions of council but also to keep the momentum and that’s what makes the role unattractive.
AS It takes up a lot of time. For some it won’t be very convenient if they are running an office. It can be that they don’t understand the system that well and don’t know what a president does. They also might feel it is difficult to get 60 nominators to support them – it depends on your networks. It is not for everybody – some people call me brave for doing it.
BD It is a symptom of the situation at the RIBA. It is going to be a difficult job for whoever wins this election. It is hardly surprising that most people regard it as a poisoned chalice.
What will you do for architects if made president?
AS I will champion them. I want to connect with members and fight for them. Together we need to promote the measurable value of good design. I will champion both the value of architects and of architecture.
BD I will work within the RIBA to enable it to engage with architects. Among architects the RIBA’s credibility is at an all-time low. Most architects feel that it doesn’t engage with them, champion them, promote them or meet their needs in practice. The culture in the institute needs changing.
Among architects the RIBA’s credibility is at an all-time low
AJ There is a narrow definition of what success is for architects – it needs to be made wider. We need to help evidence good design as we get further when we do that. That puts architects in a better position.
What does the next RIBA president need to focus on?
BD The membership – increasing it and making it much more diverse. The way to do this is by championing architects and architecture.
AS There is a tendency to have a lot of reorganisations to the institute. That is not easy to have such a churn rate of staff. You start to lose your corporate memory of how to do things which makes it harder. Yes we absolutely want innovation, but we also need consistency. We don’t want revolutions every two years – we need evolution to progress.
We absolutely want innovation but we also need consistency
The president is the chairman of the council but he is also the ethos of the institute for that period of time. He is leaning on his values and the values that he feels the institute should hold dear to sway it in a particular direction. These are the things that progress the institute and get the most value out of its members.
AJ There is pressure on presidents to bring their own agenda to the RIBA. I don’t think that should be the case. There is a vision that has been agreed with council and everything is mapped to that so there should be no disconnect between what council wants and what is delivered. The last thing you want is a president coming in and heading off in a completely different direction. The role of the president is not to distract – they should be there to help the institute, the members, and the council stay focused on the big issues and not let council end up being a series of soapbox discussions. We have to keep a hand on what the big issues are. The next president needs to make the RIBA more inclusive and more relevant, and must encourage discourse and debate.
In a recent AJ survey 45 per cent of architects said they were pessimistic about the future of the RIBA. What will you do to change this?
AJ RIBA is not seen as relevant. We can’t keep reviewing membership for ever and ever, but we need to ensure what we do is useful and relevant to architects.
RIBA is not seen as relevant
AS It concerns me. It is to do with engagement. The institute has changed a lot in the last 10 years: the website is infinitely better than the dull corporate website we had of old. I want to engage with people – to let them vent their frustrations, to debate and to contribute.
BD RIBA has huge challenges. It has started to be much better managed – Jane Duncan made the breakthrough and re-equipped it with a chief executive and a finance director who I believe in. Now it has a much better chance of pulling through. There is no better source of support and promotion for architects than the RIBA.
Is the RIBA still relevant or does it need a shake up?
AS It is absolutely relevant to architects. If we don’t champion architects nobody will. ARB won’t – it is a regulatory body just there to fulfil a function so that we have protection of title. It is absolutely essential that the RIBA stays.
BD It needs a massive shake up. We need huge change at the RIBA. I wouldn’t want to end up with the job as president without having had made it clear to everyone that I believe it must change a lot – in its culture, behaviour, structures and management. The RIBA will need to change its direction away from an organisation that takes a corporate approach to the promotion of architecture to one that works with its members to promote what architects can do.
AJ We are where we are. We can’t change what has happened but what we have to work out is what is good about where we are and what we are doing. Business has to continue you can’t stop and say ’let’s redesign’. You have to think about the good points. It’s not that bad but it needs to be made relevant.
How would you reverse falling membership numbers?
AS We need to engage and to be more relevant. The institute does so much but we need to get that message out there more. It is about relevance, being there for people, and making sure they know that we are a personal organisation that is membership-driven.
BD Membership numbers are flatlining but the market share is falling. It is not only that members don’t see the value in RIBA membership, but that they find themselves much more rewarded by putting their energy elsewhere.
AJ The average age of a member of the RIBA is mid-50s and often one member of a practice will be the RIBA member and the rest won’t be. This is a budgetary thing but also a relevance issue. You have to balance how much membership is with what the offer is. We should be benchmarking what we offer.
Recent staff surveys at the RIBA have found morale to be low. How will you tackle this?
AS That is of great concern to me. It is one of the reasons I am running for president. I want to re-establish more stability in terms of stopping the churn and the constant reorganisation. We are going to need to make adjustments but we need to make sure the staff are cared for, that their contributions are well appreciated, and that the membership and the staff are a team together. We must be aware and listen to their concerns.
Alan Jones, RIBA presidential candidate 2016
AJ There has been movement on this issue over the past year. Experience and love of the job only go so far. I can sense that staff feel like they can never look more than a few months ahead. We need a game plan further than five years ahead.
BD It is about clarity of purpose and ensuring there is an agenda that everybody understands, shares and is enthusiastic about. Any organisation should expect that its team of staff clearly understands and supports the purpose of the organisation - that is the root cause of the problems at the RIBA. It is very difficult to achieve good outcomes if you don’t believe the leadership is well focused and has a clear trajectory.
Have recent departures of key members of staff damaged the institute?
AS It has inevitably been disruptive but it is our task to make sure that is minimised as we move on. It is something you have to get over but you will miss those people for a while. It is bound to be disruptive and to lower morale. We need to be much more stable but we cannot be complacent and sit on our hands.
BD The recent changes have created an opportunity.
AJ I don’t know most of the personalities. Ultimately it is about having the best people for the job. Vice presidents need to be given a stronger role – the president cannot be responsible for everything. I see a strong institute as a strong chief exec and team.
How will you tackle the perception that the RIBA is London-centric?
AS By valuing and going out to all the regions and drawing in all of their input. We need to make sure that all our members’ contributions are valued. The best way to do that is by electronic means. We can’t all get to London and many rarely do. The institute must reach out to these people.
AJ It’s about network. We are looking at a global organisation now.
BD By focusing on the championing of architects wherever and however they practice. Every time I hear the phrase ‘London and the regions’ it gives rise to the patronising presumption that there is something inferior about the regions.
Andrew Salter, bidding to become the next RIBA president
How do you plan to engage with the younger generation of architects?
AS By showing relevance through all the exciting new stuff that comes out. When I came out from architecture school and into practice, the one thing I missed was all the lovely seminars I had. I’d like more of those. It should be a lot more seamless from when you come out of university so you can continue the debates and discussions online, or at talks, or in committees. I want them to really engage with the institute. It is really key that we engage with them. We have young people in our office and they are just great. They have a lot to contribute and we should be celebrating them.
BD The younger generation of architects is already doing great things and showing us new ways of practising. They are already making clearer their frustrations. They are making great strides and it is the job of the RIBA to engage with them.
The younger generation of architects are making clear their frustrations
AJ It would be great as a president if I can bring the average age of the RIBA down. Having a lower average age suggests a better level of engagement. We need to be relevant and supportive. We can’t just focus on the younger members. What about the older members of the RIBA – the ones in their sixties and seventies? How do we keep them engaged too? They can be giving back to the younger members – let’s involve them.
How does architectural education need to change?
AJ It has to be carefully balanced. It is about core skills and lifetime skills and should be about taking ownership of issues. We need clear thinking, robust and creative students, but their creativity must have a purpose and a reason behind it. Students don’t need to specialise during their studies. Graduates will progress through to become registered and will specialise after three to four years – not while in education.
AS The people leaving – who have paid all that money – must be properly equipped for practice if that is where they are going or that there are other good routes to other careers. It should be broader for those who appreciate architecture and wish to use their education to do other things. It should be focused in the latter stages so that we can have really useful students coming out into practice. Schools of architecture can make sure students are equipped with the technological edge that they need. If they are BIM-savvy then they will be so useful to practice.
Is students are BIM-savvy then they will be useful to practice
BD I cannot understand why the changes are so slow coming – it is baffling. The biggest problem is that it is immensely expensive. There is a huge and imminent danger that the profession will become an old rich man’s world. There need to be many more routes to qualification and in particular we need to develop earn-as-you-learn schemes which will enable people to qualify while they are practising.
Do we still need protection of title?
AS Yes - we need even more protection. People are only too happy to take that away from you and are eager to fill your shoes when they are less able or less skilled. To have the profession stamp its authority in the way it does through ARB is absolutely crucial to retaining a position. The country would be better served if we had protection of function as well as title.
BD I worry that the sharing of protection of title between the ARB and the RIBA is confusing. The route towards a better valued title is to upgrade the quality, level of service, and ethical behaviour of chartered architects and practices.
AJ The title has to be earned. The relationship between ARB and RIBA needs to be fixed.
Does the RIBA need to do more to lobby the government?
AS We need to champion the value of architecture. That is our prime objective. We need government to understand what a worthwhile legacy means. How do we want to see our cities and how do we want our people to relate to their environment?
BD One of the problems is that the RIBA’s gradually descending spiral has reduced its influence enormously.
AJ Yes, but it has to be done in a very evidence-based way. RIBA should help to commission proper, robust research that government will acknowledge.
What is the one key issue facing the profession at the moment?
AJ At the moment there is a polarisation. The middle is getting squeezed – they are not big enough to get the big contracts and they are too big to operate and survive on the small ones. The middle is finding it hard.
AS It’s always going to be the economy, but the other key element for the practitioner would be the shifting changes between public and private in regulation and activity. All the different ways the government is being digitised or changing is rather unsettling for a practice.
BD The extent to which we are valued by society in terms of our social, cultural and economic value.
What would you most like to achieve as president?
BD At the end of my two-year term I would like there to be a fully functioning, available and widely used part of the architect’s normal service for post-occupancy evaluation. A big improvement to our performance as a profession needs to begin with better research and a better body of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t. It needs embedding in the Plan of Work.
AS To promote the measurable value of good design both at a local and national government level.
AJ A reduction in the average age of the RIBA membership, an increase in membership numbers, and for the RIBA to be more inclusive. One third of RIBA members do not work in traditional practice. What can the RIBA do to support them? People still talk about leaving private practice and going to the dark side – it’s not about that any more.